A St. Clair County jury found Carlos Garrett not guilty Friday night of the murder of Centerville teenager Nicole Willis, who was found naked and beaten to death in 1989 in a vacant lot a block away from her home.
Garrett sat motionless and then looked down after Circuit Judge Zina Cruse read the verdict.
The jury deliberated for more than three hours Friday.
After the verdict, St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said: "Just because it may be a hard fight or even a fight we could lose, that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight. We will continue to fight to bring justice to victims like Nicole Willis, especially when we have this kind of compelling evidence. We owe victims and their families nothing less."
Special Assistant State's Attorney Ali Summers told the jury during her closing argument on Friday afternoon that Nicole held the identity of her murderer in her hands.
"She took with her in the grips of her dying hands the identity of the man who killed her," Summers said.
Summers was referencing the DNA that was found beneath Nicole's fingernails, who was found sexually assaulted and beaten to death in a vacant field less than a block from her home.
That DNA was a 1-in-3.2 quadrillion match to Garrett, according to Illinois State Police Forensic scientist Jay Winters, who testified in the first-degree murder case against Garrett, 53.
Summers urged the jury during her closing argument to look at the crime scene. There was a trail of Nicole' belongings from 69th Street to the back of the vacant lot, Summers said, where Nicole was knocked to the ground and her clothes were torn from her body. Summers said the evidence showed that the struggled before she was beaten to death.
And it's likely that DNA wound up there during that struggle, said Winters, an ISP scientist who specialized in DNA testing.
"A casual explanation for the appearance of Carlos Garrett's DNA under Nicole's fingernails would be extremely unlikely," Winters said under questioning from Summers.
A full male DNA profile found on one of Nicole' fingernails was linked to Garrett after the profile was loaded into a state database. A DNA match later was made to Garrett, who in 2010 served a prison sentence on a drug conviction.
Nicole, 16, was found in a vacant lot near her home in 6804 Russell Ave. in Centreville on Oct. 4, 1989. She had been beaten in the head and face and sexually assaulted with a stick.
The DNA match was made in 2010 after now-retired Illinois State Police Lt. Dave Wasmuth found the sexual assault kit that contained Nicole' fingernail clippings, taken at the time of her autopsy.
Winters testified that a full DNA profile was found on the fingernail clippings of Nicole' right hand.
"Even when people have been scratched, it's rare to find foreign DNA," Winters said. "To find a full-profile, that is extremely rare."
The DNA didn't belong to just anyone, Summers said, it belonged to a prize fighter, who would have the ability and strength to beat someone to death with his bare hands.
Summers reminded the jury of the testimony of Garrett's former girlfriend, who testified on Tuesday that Garrett stripped her naked, beat her in the face, abandoned her in a field after sexually assaulting her.
In his closing argument, Thomas Q. Keefe III, Garrett's attorney, pointed to missing evidence, such as items of Nicole' clothing and a baseball cap with three hairs that was found under Nicole' body.
Keefe said the police had "tunnel vision" once they had the DNA match, failing to consider other possible viable suspects.
Keefe also told the jury that Garrett had an alibi.
Jim Schulte, the chief financial officer for Lange-Stegmann, a north St. Louis fertilizer company where Garrett worked at the time of the Nicole' murder, testified Friday that Garrett would have worked until 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 4, 1989 -- the day Nicole was last seen walking home on 69th Street in Centreville. She was last seen at about 4:15 p.m., according to testimony.
Keefe then called Lance Peterson, who works for Metro Bi-State Development Agency, who runs public bus service in St. Louis and St. Clair County.
Peterson testified that the earliest Garrett could have arrived at the 68th and State streets stop would have been 4:53 p.m.
Garrett might have met Nicole on the bus after she was picked up on State Street in East St. Louis, then attacked her as she walked home, police theorized. Nicole rode the bus home from Cahokia High School. Garrett usually rode the bus from his job to his house on 80th Street.
Keefe also told the jury to remember that Garrett, during three interviews with Wasmuth, denied knowing or killing Nicole.
"They have to do better than that," Keefe said of the prosecutions case.
But in the final moments of her closing, Summers told the jury to recall the testimony of Garrett's cellmate, who testified that Garrett told him the first time Wasmuth came to question him that Wasmuth was asking about the 1989 murder of a girl who died from a blow to the head.
"Wasmuth didn't tell him that until the third time he questioned him," Summers said.
After the verdict, Keefe said: "For five years, Carlos has maintained his innocence, and someone finally listened. While our heart goes out to the Willis family, we will be forever grateful to this jury. They got it right."
Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2570.